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Oscar Nominations Aside, ‘An Education’ Makes Me Cringe

This week’s Oscar nominations have been kind to the Nick Hornby penned film “An Education,” which netted honors for acting, writing, and even Best Picture. The film tells the story of a bright middle-class schoolgirl in a humdrum town in mid-century Britain, who falls into an affair with a cultured, attractive and winning older man named David Goldman. Yep, he’s Jewish. He also ends up being a sneaky, lying, conniving criminal who has deceived our naive protagonist and her family and led her off her dogged path to success which includes an Oxford acceptance.

I enjoyed the earnest acting and the quiet drama of the film, which was so accurate and true to the mindsets of teenage girls. In fact, I could almost overlook Hornby’s somewhat obvious writing and the stereotypical portrayal of the Jewish character, but not quite. Gabrielle Birkner did a great job interviewing Hornby for the Forward back in December, but his responses didn’t quite clear away all my discomfort with the way the Goldman character fits into problematic conceptions of Jewishness. I’m not saying it’s a blatantly antisemitic film, because it has a very sympathetic and humane approach to all its characters, even towards Goldman who’s played brilliantly by Peter Saarsgard. I’m just saying it’s a little too close for comfort to antisemitic tropes.

As a huge fan of Brit-lit and British TV, this film struck me as portraying Jews in a vintage British way. It reminded me of 19th century novels by Trollope, Dickens, Walter Scott and even the well-intentioned George Eliot. In these novels, the Jew is the dynamic, seductive outsider, with winning ways that subvert or circumvent the staid class system and strict social manners of the gentile Brits. The exotic Jew throws stuck-in-the-mud British society into relief, maybe shakes people up a bit, but ends up being incompatible with their lives — usually he or she proves untrustworthy or too exotic for England.

This isn’t quite the same image of the Jewish character we see on this side of the pond — pushy, nebbishy, neurotic. There’s a lot of historical, cultural, and sociological analysis to explain how such stock types are absorbed into different cultures. But the end result just goes to show us that ethnic and racial anxieties vary from place to place, and have way more to do with the stereotypers than the stereotypees.

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